Ray Griffiths MBANT is a nutritional therapist and lecturer with an MSc in Personalized Nutrition. Ray lectures on a diverse range of subjects such as Parkinson’s disease, cancer, ageing and mitochondria. In his book, Mitochondria in Health and Disease, he explores the roles mitochondria play in human health, and how to optimize mitochondrial function through personalized nutrition. Here, he discusses the role mitochondria played in the process of evolution and what we understand about mitochondria today.
When we think of mitochondria, we usually limit our ideas of this microscopic organelle to their role as a producer of energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) – and what a magnificent job they do, but they are also involved in so many more roles beyond ATP synthesis!
To fully understand the vital part mighty mitochondria play in health and disease we have to journey back millions of years to see how these mitochondrial pioneers of evolution were once bacteria in their own right. Through a symbiotic union with another organism, mitochondria were at the heart of a quantum leap in evolution – cells powered by mitochondria were able to drive genetic creativity to produce the astounding array of animal, plant and fungi species we see all around us. Without mitochondria, none of this would be remotely possible!
With mitochondria on-board, cells were now able to create energy aerobically and anaerobically. As oxygen levels rose on the planet, mitochondria helped turn oxygen, a once poisonous gas, into a vital life-giving gas. It continues to amaze me how time and again life evolves, to not only overcome a disadvantage, but to springboard from a disadvantage into an evolutionary leap forward.
We might wonder what these events from millions of years ago have to do with our health in the present moment? We have to understand that many of the inventions of these ancient biochemical engineers are as alive and well in us today as they were back in the mists of time.
The tricarboxylic acid cycle (citric acid cycle) and electron transport chain are mechanisms within mitochondria which produce ATP. They have been preserved throughout the evolution of complex life for millions of years because they are actually prime examples of biochemical genius.
Mitochondria have endowed our cells with the ability to respire aerobically but our cells still often choose to respire anaerobically – even in the presence of oxygen. Why? Asking this question opens up a mitochondrial world beyond energy production. This is where mitochondria turn into builders of cells – where citric acid from mitochondria is used as the starting point for cholesterol and fatty acid synthesis and intermediates from the tricarboxylic acid cycle are used for protein synthesis.
This shift from a cellular power station to cellular builder is at the core of many health conditions. Yes, cell building is needed continually to repair, heal and grow. However, excessive growth and proliferation is the last thing we need – especially as we age. Highly calorific diets and inflammation can drive mitochondria to support excessive cell building over producing energy. It’s unsurprising that insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and other illnesses are all related to mitochondria in the cell building state.
In text books, mitochondria are often drawn as individual mitochondrion. However, our understanding of the secret life of mitochondria has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. Mitochondria continually fuse and divide when appropriate – this enables them to split off worn-out components and digest them to keep our cellular energy ‘buzzing’ at peak efficiency. Failing mitochondria are often given a ‘kiss of life’ by other mitochondria, when healthy mitochondria inject vital ‘life-saving’ components with a mitochondrial ‘kiss’.
Poor diet, insulin resistance and lack of exercise make it extremely difficult for mitochondria to engage in mitochondrial quality control. In neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, failing mitochondria are at the heart of the conditions. In fact, the genes most often mutated in familial forms of Parkinson’s disease all relate to mitochondrial genes.
For those of you who are interested to find out more, my book is a distillation of my 22-year journey and study of nutrition and biochemistry. The first part of the book explores mitochondrial evolution, concepts and theory. The second part of the book explores mitochondrial involvement in many health conditions – using many concepts from the first part.
As the body’s energy suppliers, mitochondria have a serious impact on our health. This practical, evidence-based guide explains the potential consequences of mitochondrial dysfunction, and how personalized nutrition can optimise mitochondrial health and help, prevent or address chronic disease.